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So much so that once set to music by a twelve stringed guitar it became a part of UNESCO’s world heritage. The origins of Fado (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈfaðu]) meaning “destiny” or “fate” likely started as an oral tradition without lyrics or music. At some point it was set to music played on an “English guitar” which had come to Portugal in the 1750ies and after modifications became a “Portuguese guitar”. It was sung in brothels and watering holes of Lisbon’s Alfama district frequented by sailors, dock- and other blue collar workers. Originally shunned by established poets, aristocracy and nobility the myth based on the 19th century forbidden love story between Count Vimioso and Maria Severa Onofriana a Roma prostitute with a voice may have bridged the gap between the social classes. By the early 20th century famous poems were set to music and the singing tradition became upwards mobile introduced in music halls, on film and recorded.
The 1926 military coup introduced censorship and improvisation was stripped out as censors must approve of shows before going public. Ergo the political commentary and songs about civil inequalities all but disappeared from public view. Yet the genres popularity grew and a National competition of singers began in 1953 and is still going annually. As the military rule came to an end in 1974 Fado lost some appeal as it had seen as a tool during the dictatorship. However it revived and in 1998 got its own museum quay side in Alfama.
It was the museum which organized the tour we embarked on this Friday evening. With our bums firmly on the stone steps of one of the many stairs in the hilly district the performance began. The “fadista” and the two guitarists took us through the melodic ups and downs of the song. That we understood nothing of the words didn’t matter. As locals came out on the street it became a true sing-a-long. After that the applauses died down Andreia our English speaking guide took us along for a walk through the neighbourhood and stopped here and there to tell the history and share folklore.
We stopped at another set of steps and the performers took tune. As the words and tones bounced between the stone walls windows opened and residents joined in singing along and keeping the beat. It was a true joy to see the engagement of the many local women who Oooohhheed and Aaaahhhed in all the right places. Needless to say the performers were rewarded with raucous applauses before we all moved on again. As Andreia continued to educate the group we passed by numerous small venues advertising Fado performances with the night’s dinner. The third performance was presented on Plaza España where in front of the pink Fado museum the crowd quickly grew to three four deep and ended the tour on a high note, us wanting more.
To get it we visited the Museum which tells the history on film, in pictures, shows the cultural influences and exhibits the instruments used. A wide selection of samples can be enjoyed in a listening room through headsets.
Now what remained was to select one of the restaurants offering nightly performances. We settled on “A Baiuca” loosely translated “a low-level eating establishment” ironically enough with a minimum consumption of twenty-five Euros per person, is just such a hole in the wall offering Fado nightly. Here of the “vadio” variant meaning that anyone who feels compelled can air their lungs. Luckily the wiser of us two hade made a reservation and we squeezed in at a tiny table whilst olives, bread and cheese landed in front of us without a word. As it was not complementary we limited our intake and picked a main off the menu. The food lived up to the name as did the house wine of the box variety. Not even the entertainment started off well as the first singer did not impress. However we were saved from the tourist trap as the evening continued and the quality of the singers grew. In a break a few hours later as we thought that we had our fill and asked to pay for the evening we were encouraged to hang around a bit longer. The reason soon became evident as the owner Henrique Gascon, a burly man took to the “stage” (a corner of the restaurant) and entertained the jam packed restaurant. Even if we did not remember the food his “rubato” had rubbed off and echoed out in the alley as we walked back to the hotel.
Fado Museum: Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, N.º 1, www.museudofado.pt/
Restaurant: “A Baiuca”, Rua de São Miguel, 20, Alfama Phone: 21 886 7284
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